They were once as ubiquitous at award shows as Valentino gowns and production numbers: The performer who goes political.
In 1993, Richard Gere talked human rights in China. That same year, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon preached about the plight of Haitian refugees. And in 2003, on the eve of the war in Iraq, Michael Moore talked of President Bush as a “fictitious president” pursuing a “fictitious war.”
But at last year’s Golden Globes ceremony, not to mention the Oscars, political outcry was scant, even as the war dragged on. Not even Warren Beatty said much other than ribbing Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I asked Arnold to become a Democrat, and he did what I said.”
This year’s Emmy Awards did feature a political overtone from Sally Field, who said, “If the mothers ruled the world there would be no goddamn wars in the first place,” but it was excised from the telecast. Fox claimed that its censors pulled the trigger over her use of “goddamn.”
In fact, the irony is that there has been so little said at recent award shows about the now unpopular war in Iraq, compared to when it started, when there was still broad public support for the invasion.
So are we in for yet another politics-free award season?
It’s hard to believe that will be the case, given that the Golden Globes and the Oscars will take place during an election year.
There’s also the prospect of at least a couple of nominees coming from this year’s spate of films that deal with current geopolitical events, such as “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “A Mighty Heart” and “In the Valley of Elah.” And it’s more likely that presenters or winners would say something about Hollywood’s labor unrest, if the Writers Guild of America strike is still on at Globes time.
Still, the entertainment industry has become savvier about speaking out — where to do it and where not to. There’s the certainty that right-wing talk hosts are lying in wait for any more confirmation of Hollywood’s political agenda. There’s also the issue of timing and eloquence: Political speech works best when it doesn’t sound like a dead horse.
Moreover, with the explosion of forums on the Internet, stars such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, for instance, have little trouble commanding press attention for their causes; they don’t necessarily need an Oscar telecast to get the word out to a wide audience.
Veterans of award shows still bring up the raucous 1978 Oscars, when Vanessa Redgrave, in her acceptance speech, drew boos when she condemned “Zionist hoodlums.” Later in the telecast, presenter Paddy Chayefsky scolded her.
One of the few performers who seems unabashed in what he says at award ceremonies is George Clooney. In his Golden Globes speech in 2005, Clooney’s joke about Jack Abramoff — “Who would name their kid ‘Jack’ with ‘off’ at the end. No wonder the guy’s screwed up” — incited Abramoff’s father, Frank, to fire off a scathing letter to the Palm Springs Desert Sun: “Are you the heir to the dignity and greatness of Hollywood’s past or, more likely, a portent to a depressing and horrific future?”
When he won the Oscar that year for “Syriana,” Clooney gave what was regarded as a classy speech in which he applauded the Academy for recognizing topical films, even if it meant criticism that Hollywood was “out of touch.”
What’s become the standard at many ceremonies is what’s appropriate when you are a presenter and what is when you are a winner. Returning to the Oscars in 2003, Sarandon merely flashed the peace sign.
Gil Cates, who will produce his 14th Oscars next year, says that he has a precise rule of thumb.
“A presenter agrees to appear on a show to present an award much in the way that an actor agrees to appear in a play or a television show or a movie,” he says. “They have a job to do, the presenter, which is to present the award. But when a presenter goes into anything political, it is very inappropriate, unprofessional and a display of bad manners.
“When a person wins the award, it is his or her 45 seconds, and while my personal preference would be that they stick to the award and their feeling of getting it, it is their time. So I guess if it’s within the bounds of good taste, it is their time, and if they want to say something, they can.”